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June 17, 2010

I’ve been trying to write this for years. The title looks kind of silly. Maybe you laughed when you read it, but the name comes to me unbidden and my eyes well. My mother died ten years ago this week; her childhood killed her, and it followed her a long way to do it.

I just watched the trailer and read the Feministing post on Winter Bone, a movie that Courtney said might be this year’s Precious in the way it addresses rural poverty. I don’t know what ideas other affluent white folks have when they think about rural poverty, and it’s usually associated with the South, or sometimes the plains and inland West. But my mind heads North, across the Piscataqua river into York County, Maine, where my mother was born and raised.

The local nickname for my mother’s people implied that they had lice. They lived for a while in a two room house; my grandmother in one, the kids in the other and my grandfather nowhere to be found. My mother’s name was Goofy, and her older sister’s name was Stupid, or sometimes the other way around, or at least that’s what they heard most often. They called my grandmother by her first name, so that in public she might be confused for a nanny or governess or the oldest daughter; she had a bunch of kids before she left her teens, so it was an easy mistake to make. (She had issues. Ever see Hoarders:Buried Alive? Amateurs.)

The kids that lived — a garbage truck took one of the older boys, I think another died of illness as a baby — often went hungry, with consequences that wouldn’t show on their bodies until much later. My mother managed to be a standout field hockey player, but the empty-bellied nights cost her all her teeth. She was married in a full set of dentures. Her babysitting earnings were part of the family budget. Warm bathwater was dependent on the supply of firewood, and whether the pump worked.

She never relaxed. Later, in their teens, the oldest surviving boy took up the role of abuser. He’d sit and watch TV (they had managed one after my grandmother remarried) with a silver dollar in his hand. He was deadly accurate with it, and so all the others remained motionless. Later, he did a bid for bank robbery in Canada. I’m not sure he ever held a straight job, and he was not welcome near my home. I’ll give you a picture: Ace, the Kiefer Sutherland role in Stand By Me, played instead by Steve Buscemi. He made it past 65; the devil takes care of his own. One sister bolted at fifteen, West into New Hampshire. She couldn’t take someone’s hands on her anymore.

My whole life, mother ate secretly like a feral animal. She smoked heavily. I’ve written before about her injuries and her battle with the bottle and rehab; and yet, with so little, she gave so much. She was the first to go, just 58; the rest have followed, none of the full siblings but the oldest reaching 65.* My uncle went a piece at a time, first the heart attacks and then the aneurisms. One took away the ability to speak, he clawed it back, and it went again. My aunt was on a double lung transplant list and ran out of time, or hope. My mother had high blood pressure and heart attacks before the lung cancer. Heart, lungs, blood vessels, the ailments of nervous smokers, living like rabbits, always looking over their shoulders.

I got her a gift certificate for a massage once. She never used it, and when I asked why she said she couldn’t stand for a stranger to see all the scars. It never stopped following her.

Opiedopiediddledot was the pet pig. I never asked, but I think they ate the pig. That’s how it was.

*Her half-siblings, whose father protected them, are more functional people, and though they’ve fought cancer they’re still with us.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2010 8:57 am

    There’s that cliched phrase that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. I think you surviving all this and still having the energy and zest to fight for others shows that your Mom left an enduring Legacy.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Kaija permalink
    June 18, 2010 9:54 am

    I saw this film summarized/reviewed/written about in several places and I will definitely seek it out and see it, even though I know it’s going to hit me hard. I grew up in one of those places too and fled the minute I finished high school. Much attention has been paid to the trauma experienced by children growing up in rough urban areas and the long-term coping mechanisms that they adopt/how those behaviors may not be adaptive outside of the environment that necessitated them and the “reprogramming” required. This may be one of the first films (there have been a few books such as Miriam Toews’ “A Complicated Kindess” that touch on this) that shows that same dynamic occurring in the rural ghetto. I also recommend “Methland: The Life and Death of a Small American Town”, by Nick Reding; it gives a good systemic analysis via narrative of the widespread causes/effects of the meth culture on rural America.

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